I’m reading through all six of the Booker Prize shortlisted novels – attempting to finish before the winner is announced, although given the size of the books that is looking unlikely at the moment! Here’s the fifth of my reviews, for Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.
By 1535 Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, is far from his humble origins. Chief Minister to Henry VIII, his fortunes have risen with those of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, for whose sake Henry has broken with Rome and created his own church. But Henry’s actions have forced England into dangerous isolation, and Anne has failed to do what she promised: bear a son to secure the Tudor line.
When Henry visits Wolf Hall, Cromwell watches as Henry falls in love with the silent, plain Jane Seymour. The minister sees what is at stake: not just the king’s pleasure, but the safety of the nation. As he eases a way through the sexual politics of the court, its miasma of gossip, he must negotiate a ‘truth’ that will satisfy Henry and secure his own career. But neither minister nor king will emerge undamaged from the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days.
As regular readers to the blog will know, I’ve been alternatively loving and loathing Hilary Mantel’s epic tome ‘Wolf Hall’ for the last fortnight…and the rest.
Well, I’ve finished it.
What an all consuming story – covering one of the most fascinating periods of history. When I wasn’t hurling the book away from me in disgust (no, BookElf, I never actually physically threw your book!), I was gripped down to the tips of my toes.
The characters, settings and events were depicted with a near frightening eye for detail, and I absolutely loved, in particular, Mary Boylen – whom the author managed to bring to life, making her far more than the anaemic depictions that have become fashionable recently. Of all the women described, I found her to be the most contemporary, and her flirtation and ambition (or lack thereof) could translate perfectly to today.
As is not always the case with historical novels, the balance between the ‘famous’ people and those lesser known secondary characters is practically perfect here. Naturally, we see Anne, and the Queen, and the King up close and personal, but the action is driven by lesser men. The manipulators and instigators here are the key players – those whose names are known to history, but whose deeds are somewhat more murky. This change of focus brings additional layers to an already complex book.
The pacing was also a thing that inspired fear and wonder, with so many people and events happening side by side, though the book is told in a very linear format. Cromwell is, as it were, ‘our man’, and the tale is told through his eyes, with very few deviations. Even when he learns something from another character, it is almost always revealed to us in the format of a conversation.
Also hugely enjoyable were the slight nods to the reading audience. Though Jane Seymore is barely mentioned and features only briefly, her mere presence instantly highlights to the expectant reader that almost all of these important people will end up dead by the end of that decade, however beloved of King Henry they might once have been. The realisation of which tickled my morbid sense of humour in a gross and thoroughly thrilling way.
With regards to the story, to the subject matter, I can have no complaints – intrigue, nobility, underhand dealings, and an on going feud with ‘those’ Europeans – who could want for more? However, in the structure and writing, I was somewhat less satisfied.
I’m not going to repeat my earlier criticisms about the lack of clarity, occasional need to create unique identifiers, and an unashamed over-reliance on pronouns – without any appropriate context to ground them; though I believe that these remain relevant throughout the book. Now that I’ve finished, I think that using pronouns as the near sole descriptor for Cromwell was indeed a form of literary affectation, which in my case did not work and took considerably from my enjoyment of the book.
The greatest success of this book is that I want to read more, I will definitely be working my way through the sequel, desperate for more from these characters. Where the writing flowed for me, it carried me away, and I will look out for the author in future.
However, as I said before, I would be very slow to recommend this to friends who did not have an avid interest in the time period, or in literature that is determined to be considered literary. While this is a lean book with regards to an avoidance of flowery descriptors, despite its size; it does suffer from the same self importance Cromwell was so often accused, most particularly where the persistence of an affectation is allowed over the substance of the book – surely a move unworthy of an author of this calibre.
So, I guess I’m suggesting that you give it a go, but feel free to throw in the towel if you find the present historic style of writing to be grating, or you can’t figure out who is who, and treat yourselves to the Shardlake series instead. It’s a totally different kettle of fish, but for me, fair more pleasant fishing grounds